Marshall McLuhan





Author and social theorist Tom Wolfe once commented on Canadian professor Marshal McLuhan’s mantra, “the medium is the message” saying:
The new technologies…radically alter the entire way people use their five senses, the way they react to things, and therefore, their entire lives and the entire society. It doesn’t matter what the content of a medium like t.v. is… 20 hours a day of sadistic cowboys caving in peoples teeth or… Pablo Casals droning away on his cello.

How is it that violence and the arts are effective in the same manner? Wouldn’t the content be the most important factor in analyzing a television program? To understand Marshall McLuhan’s theories the reader must not be concerned with the symbolic content of what is being said or the cosmetic interpretation of the actual show but rather, look deeper into the whole infrastructure of the medium itself.
McLuhan was prone to thinking up “clever” analogies and plays on words; and describing the content of a medium was no different. He described it as “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” We are the content of our media because the way we live life is largely a function of the way we process information. That information is presented and made available by way of a certain medium. In turn, each medium delivers a new message and a new form of human being, whose qualities are suited to it. The same words spoken face to face, printed on paper, or presented on television provide three different messages simply because of the different senses used to perceive it.
McLuhan thought primary channels of communication change the way we look at the world around us. The dominant medium of any age governs people and reconnects modes of relationships with the world based on which sensory motor apparatus is being activated. Dominant epochs spring from the phonetic alphabet, printing press, and the telegraph, which were turning points in society because they changed the way people thought about themselves.
To understand how and why people are affected by television, one must first become familiar with McLuhan’s idea of the electronic age. With the advent of television, the power of the printed word is decreased significantly. Books become “made-for-t.v.” movies and newspapers come alive with twenty-four hour a day headlines. Marshall McLuhan noted this increase in sound and touch and declared that instant communication was a return to prealphabetic oral tradition. The television connected people in a way that created an “all at once world” where closed human systems are rare. Suddenly everyone could share the same experience of watching images on t.v. at the same time with the same effects. To McLuhan, this meant returning to a single global village where the electronic media re-tribalize the human race. The whole world is becoming like the small town beauty shop where rumors and gossip include foreign ministers and movie stars. We all become busy bodies tracking everyone else’s business.
As we live, we search for meaning and the process of watching television is no different. However, it is the procedure used to compute this meaning that differs. Watching television “has often been seen as a routine, unproblematic, passive process: the meanings of the programs are seen as given and obvious; the viewer is seen as passively receptive and mindless.” (Livingstone p.3) This would mean that the television audience does not have to do anything but stare without thinking, and that the pictures we see do not leave any space for interpretation. However, we are a generation that has grown up learning to read television and interpret the conventions of television in order to put a meaning to the images shown. This creates the notion of “reading” television as natural.
Marshal McLuhan also noted this active participation and in turn, labeled the television as a cool medium. A Cool medium is a low-definition display that draws a person in, requiring high participation to fill in the blanks. Although we do not realize all of the many processes required to view a television program, the watcher is in fact highly involved because of the low resolution monitor, mosaic screen, and thusly, greater mental participation. The mosaic of colored dots perfectly placed on the screen encourages iconic commentary from viewers, who are